Stejskal: How Berhalter, Crew SC re-discovered Gyasi Zardes' star potential

Gyasi Zardes - Columbus Crew SC - celebrates a goal - back to camera

By the end of last season, the once-promising career of Gyasi Zardes appeared to have stalled out.

After emerging with a 16-goal campaign in his second season as a pro in 2014, Zardes endured a difficult three years with the LA Galaxy. He had middling numbers in 2015, an injury-riddled 2016 and a downright miserable 2017, recording just two goals and two assists in 24 appearances and enduring the ignominy of an ill-conceived move to right back as LA limped to the worst finish in club history.

Heading into the offseason, he was labeled a scrub. Six months later, he looks like a star.

Zardes was sent by LA to Columbus in January in exchange for striker Ola Kamara, who requested a trade from Crew SC earlier in the offseason, and a package of Targeted Allocation Money. The move has given him new life. Used mainly as a wide player in LA, Zardes is thriving as a center forward in Columbus, tied for second in MLS with 10 goals through 17 games, already the second-best single-season goal total of his career.  

For those who have followed Columbus over the last few years, his play hasn’t been a huge surprise. Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter has gotten excellent production from his forwards throughout his tenure in Ohio, designing and implementing a system that’s geared towards creating close-range opportunities for the striker in his 4-2-3-1 setup.

Kei Kamara thrived in the system in 2015 and got off to a solid start in 2016 before he was traded that May. That move cleared playing time for Ola Kamara, who broke out over the second half of 2016 and had an excellent campaign as the full-time starter last year. Zardes is now the latest in the line of Crew SC’s tradition of excellent No. 9 play.

All three forwards deserve plenty of credit for their performances with Columbus, but there’s no denying that Berhalter’s system has played a huge role in both their success and in the success of low-budget Crew SC.

“This coaching staff and the system we play allows me to be much more successful as opposed to other systems I’ve played in the past,” Zardes told over the phone on Tuesday.

Perhaps no team in the league has as defined a system as Crew SC. Columbus play one of the more consistent, recognizable styles in MLS. They’re committed to playing nearly everything out of the back, they almost always dominate the ball and they’re very rarely out of step with each other. The system makes them better than the sum of their parts – and it regularly serves up gorgeous chances for their strikers.

Of Zardes’ nine non-PK goals this season, six have been from within six yards. Eight of them have been with his first touch. He took two touches on the other. He’s second in the league in expected goals, first when penalty kicks are excluded. Those numbers are in line with Kei and Ola Kamara’s over the last few years. Taken together, they’re indicative of a team that creates a ton of excellent opportunities for their striker.

Non-PK goals
xG (no PKs)
10<br> (T-2nd)
9<br> (T-2nd)
12.56<br> (2nd)
10.98<br> (1st)
4<br> (T-1st)
O. Kamara
18<br> (5th)
16<br> (5th)
17.46<br> (2nd)
15.1<br> (3rd)
3<br> (T-9th)
K. Kamara<br> O. Kamara
21<br> (3rd)
18<br> (T-2nd)
21.93<br> (1st)
18.77<br> (1st)
6<br> (T-5th)
K. Kamara
22<br> (T-1st)
22<br> (1st)
19.31<br> (1st)
19.31<br> (1st)
3<br> (T-7th)

According to Berhalter and Zardes, Columbus’ ability to generate so many high-quality opportunities for their strikers comes down to finely coordinated off-the-ball movement. Whether right back Harrison Afful is driving up the wing, center back Jonathan Mensah has just regained possession deep in Crew SC’s own half, or if Pipa Higuain is on the ball in the middle of the attacking third, Zardes knows where he needs to go and how to get there.

“It’s all about positioning,” said Berhalter. “The positions that our players take up are very important to our game and that was the first thing, just getting Gyasi used to the positioning. When this player has the ball, this is where you need to be and then talking about, how are you going to arrive into the penalty box, where are you going to be coming from, where are some of the spots you’re going to need to occupy, where’s the space going to be, where’s the ball going to be coming from, digging deeper on those type of things.”

Every step is choreographed. Berhalter, assistant coach and former US national team forward Josh Wolff and the rest of Crew SC’s coaching staff work with Zardes on how to sell a defender with his first step and how to lose him with his second. They’re meticulous with their work, walking through the movements in training and rehashing them in the film room by reviewing match and practice footage. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s made the game far simpler for Zardes.

“It’s very unique,” said Zardes. “The simplify the game for me. Although I feel like I’m growing as a player with each year, I see the game in a much different way now. I think the coaching staff here at Columbus are making that possible.”

Berhalter is certainly pleased with Zardes’ progress, saying he feels that the striker has “been a really good acquisition” for third-place Crew SC. Zardes is perhaps even happier with the marriage. After his struggles in 2017, he’s confident again, thrilled to be playing full-time at the No. 9 and in a clear, well-defined system that fits his strengths.

“I’m extremely confident this year,” he said. “If I apply everything I’m learning from the coaches, I don’t see how I could fail. If I’m doing everything they ask of me, if I’m spending the extra time working hard and just applying everything that I’m learning in training to the game, I don’t see how I couldn’t be confident.”